Chelsea's manager Antonio Conte gestures
As horrendous campaigns go, none have been much worse than Chelsea’s 2015/16 season. They finished in 10th place with 50 points, a massive 31 points shy of champions Leicester City. While many will argue that Chelsea were not embroiled in the relegation mire or, worse still, actually relegated, their season was so pathetic because they failed to even imitate defending their title at any point last season.
The tone was immediately set for their campaign as they were held to a 2-2 draw by Swansea at home. Thibaut Courtois was sent off, there was a huge disagreement between Jose Mourinho and his medical staff and, though it felt like no one realised it due to all the sub-plot, they had dropped two vital points and momentum at the first hurdle.
The season rarely threatened to improve as they were knocked out of all cup competitions before missing out on any European football for the following season. A disaster of epic proportions for a club like Chelsea.
However, a new season always brings with it the chance for change. Owner Roman Abramovich has taken no chances though, installing former Italian coach Antonio Conte and allowing him to bring in the players he feels can make Chelsea a title challenger for the upcoming season.
While the chance to start again and forget the last season is always very tempting, the entire Chelsea team must look back at their failed campaign and learn from it. There are three very important lessons that must be heeded by coach and player before they can bury those skeletons deep in the ground.
Chelsea's John Terry in action
Stop the defensive merry-go-round
Last season was not one which allowed a settled team to form. In the forward areas no player was safe, bar Willian, as form and injury curtailed any chance of Chelsea’s forwards getting consistent playing time together. This of course did not help the team, however, it was in Chelsea’s defence that the chopping and changing hurt them most.
Last season, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Kurt Zouma, Branislav Ivanovic, Cesar Azpilicueta and Baba Rahman were all utilised in defence. While many would argue that this could show competition for places is high, or that the manager is allowing players time to recover, it was not the case here. Injury wreaked havoc on the defence and dips in form were also a major contributing factor to the change.
The form of Terry and Ivanovic was particularly worrying for Chelsea. The two had been among the first names on the team sheet during their title winning season, however, they were exposed thoroughly during the last campaign. Terry’s lack of pace was exploited by quicker strikers while Ivanovic was made to look ordinary by a lot of wingers, something Chelsea fans had never seen before.
Much of this can be attributed to not being part of a settled defence. Terry is less likely to deal with a situation confidently if the mentality and style of his defensive partner changes because it is a different person. Much in the same way, if Ivanovic knows that his centre-backs will struggle if he is beaten on the flanks, it heaps pressure on the Serbian making a mistake far more likely. Therefore, a settled defence is likely to help Chelsea hugely this season.
Chelsea's Nemanja Matic in action
Find a way to protect players when they are not on form
It was an exceptionally hot topic last year. Nemanja Matic, Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Ivanovic all struggled for form last season. When four of a team’s best players are not firing on all cylinders it makes the job of the rest of the side even more difficult. Matic in particular will feel he was made a scapegoat as he was brought on as a second half substitute against Southampton before being replaced less than half an hour later. It goes without saying that this sort of treatment won’t help a player rekindle their form.
Conte should then take note of Manuel Pellegrini’s actions when Joe Hart went through a difficult spell. The English goalkeeper committed a number of blunders which cost his side but, instead of publicly slating Hart or forcing him to remain in the team in a desperate attempt to find form, the Chilean decided to drop Hart to the bench.
While many might state that being dropped is the worst option here, it was in fact the manner in which it happened which will have helped Hart. The goalkeeper was able to move away from the public eye and focus on his own game and the areas in which he needed to improve. Mentally too, it will have helped, as not having to be constantly preparing for the next game will have allowed Hart time to take a step back from the pressures of the game itself.
Perhaps then, if the likes of Hazard and Matic are not playing well when the season begins, Conte will choose to protect his players and take them out of the public eye in order to tinker with their own game.
Chelsea's Diego Costa in action
Get Diego Costa playing or get him out
First and foremost, Diego Costa is a very talented player. The striker was superb at Atletico Madrid and his debut season for Chelsea was a goal laden one in which he helped secure the Premier League title for Jose Mourinho’s men. It could not have gone much better domestically. However, his second season was very different. He struggled for goals and form and injury hampered his playing time. It was, by all accounts, a season to forget.
What stands out most from Costa’s previous season is his own personality. The forward was caught gesturing at his own teammates accusing them of falling asleep on the pitch while his tussle with Gareth Barry in Chelsea’s FA Cup clash with Everton resulted in him receiving his marching orders. He did find more goals under Guus Hiddink than he did under Mourinho, however, for a striker of his quality it was not nearly good enough.
The alternatives to Costa, should his form desert him again, aren’t particularly dazzling though. Loic Remy is not a top quality striker. Bertrand Traore is one for the future and an entire season with him as the main striker is asking too much from one so young. Michy Batshuayi is a very similar prospect to Traore. He is a young player that, at the moment, will be far better off learning from an experienced player like Diego Costa.
Therefore, Chelsea have two options. They must either find a way to force Costa’s attention to his own game and the goals he scores and away from what his opponents are doing, or, if he refuses to curb his attitude, they must bring in a new striker. This is by far the less favourable option. Costa is a very talented player and a proven goal scorer in England. Far too many ‘proven’ strikers have struggled in England and this is something Chelsea cannot afford to have happen. If they are left with a misfiring new striker it could cost them a shot at redeeming themselves.